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George Orwell, a "Tory anarchist"

Sometimes the anniversary of the birth or death of an author, or of the date of publication of a book, offers an opportunity to pay tribute to universal culture by lighting candles which in many cases shed only a brief flicker of light on a writer or his work. This year is somewhat different; it is itself the title of a book - George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four - which since it was published over thirty years ago has made its author world famous.

by Jacques Charpier 

Orwell, whose real name was Eric Arthur Blair, was born at Motihari in Bengal on 25 June 1903. His father, Richard Walmesley Blair, was in the Opium Department of the Government of India. Eric's family belonged to the outer reaches of the Establishment. His great grandfather (died 1820) had been a rich planter in Jamaica who had married into the aristocracy but had died a poor man. His youngest son, Eric's grandfather, after briefly studying at Cambridge, was obliged through indigence to make a career in the Church ofEngland. His son, Eric's father, became a minor colonial civil servant at the age of eighteen. Somewhat late in life he married Ida Mabel Limouzin, daughter of a French teak merchant and boatbuilder. Risky speculations in rice brought the Limouzins down in the world. This relative social decline may shed some light on the personality of the future author of Nineteen Eighty-Four and on a certain ambiguity that can be sensed in him. He said that he belonged to "the lower upper middle class".

His parents' relatively modest situation did not prevent them from sending him to Eton, where he studied Latin, Greek, mathematics and divinity, and rowed and played cricket. He seems to have been an average student, but he was already determined to become a "famous author".

Like some of his fellow pupils, Eric displayed a certain refusal to conform. He read Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, and Galsworthy, and "loosely described myself as a Socialist". One question in a general knowledge paper at school in 1920 was "Whom do you consider the ten greatest men now living?" Blair, like fifteen out of sixteen in the class, included Lenin in his list. Either because of his mediocrity as a student or, more likely, because of his family's financial straits, he did not go on from Eton to Oxford. Instead, he became a trainee at the Burma Provincial Police Training School at Mandalay, graduating at the age of twenty-one as an Assistant Superintendent of Police in the British colonial administration. About the details of Blair's life during his five years in Burma not much is known, but we do know that he was torn between two feelings: a certain distance from the colonialized peoples and a growing rejection of British imperialism and colonialism. His Burmese experience was probably much more important than his unconventional reading at Eton as a source of his "socialism", and from it he developed his critique of imperialism and of capitalism in general.

In 1927 Blair resigned. "I gave it up", he wrote later, "mainly because I could not go on any longer serving an imperialism which I had come to regard as very largely a racket".

Back in England, Eric Blair's vocation to become a "famous author" took practical shape: he decided to start to write. An unusual period of his life now began. Even though he was in poor health, there was no question of living off his family. However, I do not think that it was for such simple and immediate moral reasons that he chose to live as a vagrant in Paris and London. In his first published book, Down and Out in Paris and London (when he adopted the pseudonym George Orwell), he stressed the literary nature of his work, and it is true that he published a number of articles at this period. He also refers to two novels which he claims to have written then, but all trace of them has disappeared. It is not impossible that his deliberate decision to live the life of a tramp was taken for other reasons. He was not, in the narrow sense of the term, politically minded. His unconventionality at Eton and his criticisms of British imperialism did not go far enough to mould his behaviour. On the other hand it cannot be ruled out that there were psychological impulses behind his excursions into vagabondage. He was aware of belonging to the "lower upper middle class" which was simultaneously linked to and excluded from the Establishment, conscious of its poverty yet remote from the "people", stripped of its ancient privileges but still attached to certain traditions. Let us say that there was a "bourgeois" streak in Eric Blair and also, possibly, some unconscious failing which had given rise to certain feelings of guilt. I would not go so far as to say that during the Down and Out years Orwell was taking part in a play in which he was both the actor and the only spectator, but it is not impossible that he had, in every respect, assumed a disguise. In one episode in Down and Out in Paris and London, he changes into the outfit of a "poor man" and recognizes that "my new clothes had put me instantly into a new world", acting as a kind of passport from the universe of the bourgeoisie to that of the proletariat. And he is delighted when a hawker astonishingly addresses him as "mate".

Was Eric Blair looking for exotic social experiences which he could use for a literary purpose, or was he a guilt-ridden young member of the bourgeoisie searching for redemption through mixing with the poor and imitating the way they lived? These two hypotheses are not irrelevant to an attempt to understand the personality of Blair-Orwell. Whatever the answer to the puzzle, it is a fact that between 1928 and 1930 George Orwell was preparing to enter literature in the garb of a vagrant.

Although not yet the "famous author" he had wished to become when at Eton, he began to take part in London literary life. He contributed to the Adelphi magazine. He became interested in the social and economic conditions of the hop-pickers. He looked for work, and took a teaching post at a small private school in Middlesex. He wrote for the New English Weekly and The New Statesman and Nation. He completed Burmese Days. Clearly inspired by its author's experiences in Burma, this novel examines the problem of the relationship between the white man and the indigenous population, and denounces the subtle and not-so-subtle dialectic between colonizers and colonized. This is not the classic master-slave dialectic but one which, as V.S. Pritchett wrote later, makes for a situation in which "oppression creates hypocrisy and that hypocrisy corrupts" - a formula that suggests the nuances of Orwell's attitude to the colonial problem at that time. Not that his denunciation of imperialism was the weaker for it.

Orwell had become a writer. In October 1934 he completed a second novel, The Clergyman's Daughter, a work with which he was dissatisfied and which he regarded merely as an exercise. It tells the story of Dorothy, who escapes from the family and social prison to which she is condemned and who, as far as some of the incidents she experiences are concerned, bears a close sisterly resemblance to her creator; she goes off to live with down-and-outs and hop-pickers, becomes a schoolmistress and then returns home. It is hard to know what significance Orwell attached to this "unhappy end". He was already at work on a new novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, a fierce denunciation of money, of mercantile society, of the havoc lack of money causes in individual and collective destinies, of the profit neurosis, and the worship of the golden calf.

The tone of this novel reflects a sense of moral condemnation rather than an ideological anti-capitalist stand, just as the anticolonialism of Burmese Days is indistinguishably bound up with moral comment. In discussing Keep the Aspidistra Flying, however, critics of Orwell's works hasten to point out another facet of the novelits: pacifism. Gordon Comstock, its main hero, is haunted by visions of a future war which, prophetically, he sees as being waged principally in the sky. The year is 1935, not so long before Guernica, the Stuka dive-bombers of the blitzkrieg in France and the bombing raids of the Battle of Britain.

Shortly after he had finished Keep the Aspidistra Flying, in January 1936, his publisher, Gollancz, commissioned Orwell to write a book about the condition of the unemployed in the north of England. Orwell set off immediately for the north where he was to remain for two months, living with militant trade unionists and visiting cotton mills and coal-mines. He carried out a journalistic, on-the-spot enquiry worthy of a specialist in economic and social problems - which he was not - which was to form the basis of a book published the following year entitled The Road to Wigan Pier, Wigan being an industrial centre particularly hard hit by unemployment and short-time working.

Wigan Pier was not just a straight reporting assignment. In its way it is typical of Orwell's literary style in which fiction is mixed with autobiographical detail and with descriptions from real life. What is more, the book contains a number of comments which betray Orwell as being still tributary to a middle-class conception of society and of revolution.

At that time, the Left in England consisted of the Labour Party, with its various tendencies, the (orthodox) Communist Party and the Independent Labour Party (ILP), a group whose ideological identity is difficult to define but which brought together socialist humanists as well as communists opposed to the doctrines of the Third International.

Orwell, who was closer to the ILP, described himself as a "Tory anarchist", a contradiction in terms which can be seen as reflecting the personal ambiguities of someone whom the experiences of life and certain personal fantasies had pushed towards socialist theories. Nevertheless there remained within him the man of the past who placed great trust in the middle-classes whose leader he aimed to be in the coming revolution. This contrasted with the Marxist-Leninists who saw in the Proletariat and its "dictatorship" the only dynamic, historic revolutionary force. Orwell, who saw himself as an out-and-out revolutionary, was not a populist, and even less a plebeian. At times his writing hints at a certain distance from the common people, who "smell".

But by then it was 1936 and Orwell was seriously concerned about the threat from nazism and fascism which some elements of the Left tended to under-estimate and shrug off as merely epiphenomena. Eric Blair decided to take part in the war in Spain.

He turned once again to his friends of the ILP and finally ended up in Barcelona, in the ranks of the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, the United Marxist Workers' Party).

Unlike a number of other intellectuals, Eric Blair did not go to Spain as a humanist, literary tourist. He went to the front line as an officer of a POUM centuria, or battalion, complete with cartridge belt and an old model 1889 Mauser. On 20 May 1937, a Francoist bullet struck him in the throat.

Nursed back to health - he nevertheless had some difficulty in speaking for the rest of his life - he returned to England. He had thrown himself wholeheartedly into this war which for him was a war of humanist socialism against totalitarianism. This Spanish experience seems to have finally convinced George Orwell the writer of the "singleness of the adversary": totalitarianism whether of Party or of State. He was to publish an account of his Spanish experience in Homage to Catalonia in which the theme of "revolution above all" seemed to predominate; the impending conflict with nazi Germany confirmed him in the idea that a war between capitalism and fascism would be a case of "six of one and half a dozen of the other" and that this kind of war could end, even in England, only in a fascist solution.

A new novel, Coming up for Air, appeared between Homage to Catalonia and his two last works which were to make of him an author of world stature. It is a nostalgic book. Times past are gone for ever and unrelenting pessimism is the keynote of the present - pessimism which no belief in the future can fully assuage. Something died forever in the world at the same time that George Bowling (the hero of Coming up for Air) said goodbye to his youth - the tranquillity of old England threatened with a political and warlike Apocalypse.

At that period Orwell seems to have turned to out-and-out pacifism; the "democracies" such as France and England, with their colonial empires and millions of men held in subjection and exploited in shameful fashion, appeared to be in no moral position to take a stand against the nazi and fascist dictatorships. He saw no other way out of the existing situation than the creation of a party of the masses whose aims and actions would be fired by a common determination to oppose both war and imperialism. But all this he himself seems to have seen as nothing more than a pious hope, and the signature of the German/Soviet pact convinced him that the war had already begun. At this point Orwell discovered in himself a sense of patriotism, somewhat resigned, perhaps, but unshakeable. Whatever her faults old England had to be defended against Hitlerism and, without abandoning his revolutionary theories, he decided to work as effectively as he could for the war effort.

His ill health - he was suffering from tuberculosis - prevented him from serving in the army. He worked for the BBC on broadcasts to India, joined the Home Guard and wrote The Lion and the Unicorn, a book in which he praised patriotism and criticized those intellectuals (one of whom he had been himself) who declared their disdain for national values, while insisting that the war must be a people's war accompanied by a radical change in society based on a liberal, collectivist socialism which, nevertheless, must not be dominated by the State. It must be an English socialism which would suppress neither the monarchy nor traditional culture and customs and would respect the nation's past.

He contributed to Left wing magazines such as Tribune and Horizon and, in November 1943, he began work on Animal Farm, which he was to finish at the end of the following February.

This work brought Orwell the international fame that Nineteen Eighty-Four would confirm. The subject matter is well known. Revolt is brewing amongst the animals at Mr. Jones's Manor Farm. But once freed from their human masters, the animals find themselves in the same condition of servitude as before the revolt, some of their own kind having replaced their former masters. The slogan that inspired their revolt, "All animals are equal", has become "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others". Written at the height of the war, the book was refused by several publishers. When it finally appeared in August 1945, it met with immediate success.

Already, while he was completing Animal Farm Orwell had in mind another book which he was to finish in 1948 whilst seriously ill and which was to be published in June of the following year, some seven months before his death on 21 January 1950.

The year is 1984. (Let it be said in passing that this date has no particular significance, being merely the date of the year in which the book was completed with the last two figures transposed). The world is divided between three superpowers - Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. The action takes place in England which has become an integral part of Oceania. The country, completely State-controlled, is dominated by the figure of a single man, Big Brother, supported by the Inner Party which in turn is backed up by the Outer Party machine. The hero, Winston Smith, is an employee at the Ministry of Truth, an organization whose task it is to spread the official "truth" of the day and to correct or to eradicate from the records of past events, declarations, decisions and persons in contradiction with the present policies of the State. Winston gets to know Julia, a young woman who works for the Anti-Sex League. One day, by means of various subterfuges, the young couple succeed in starting an illicit liaison. Meanwhile Winston comes into contact with a mysterious person in a position of considerable authority, O'Brien, who reveals himself to Winston as being an opponent of the regime and a supporter of Goldstein, the enemy number one and scapegoat of the leaders of Oceania. Winston confides in O'Brien, but the latter turns out to be an important member of the Inner Party, and head of the Thought Police. Arrested and tortured both physically and mentally, Winston ceases to oppose the Party, becoming entirely subject to its will, betrays Julia who in turn betrays him, and is finally despatched to a minor post in an obscure section of the Ministry of Truth.

The story line of Nineteen Eighty-Four is relatively weak. From the relationship between Winston and O'Brien, however, there emerges a profound study of every aspect of totalitarianism, not least of which is the intellectual manipulation of people through Newspeak, a language specially designed to eliminate all contestation, indeed all nuances of thought, while imposing the official "truth", however subject to change this may be, in a manner that defies logical or factual contradiction. "The earth is the centre of the universe. The sun and the stars go round it", O'Brien tells Winston; and, holding up the fingers of his left hand with the thumb concealed, "There are five fingers there. Do you see five fingers?"

Orwell examines the question of why and how a regime such as that of Oceania can exist and last. It is because the men who control it are interested only in power, power for its own sake, devoid of any other purpose such as comfort, happiness, liberty, rationality or ideology. This is a form of oligarchic totalitarianism which is based on a sort of institutionalized schizophrenia, the single State for which the exterior, objective world does not exist.

Certain of the themes of Animal Farm are echoed in Nineteen Eighty-Four, but it is not a political novel. It is not a forecast of the way in which a particular regime may develop; it is, as Orwell wrote to his publisher, a parody of the "intellectual consequences of totalitarianism", and, to some extent, this parodying aspect of the book attenuates its pessimism. In the same way as we speak of "black humour" we might describe it as "black burlesque". There is nothing to laugh at about the picture of the world presented to us in Nineteen Eighty-Four, but the prevailing feeling we have when reading it is not one of terror. One can even see in it glimpses of optimism.

"If there is hope, wrote Winston, it lies in the proles (proletariat) (...) The future belonged to the proles. And could he be sure that when their time came the world they constructed would not be just as alien to him, Winston Smith, as the world of the Party? Yes, because at least it would be a world of sanity. Where there is equality there can be sanity. Sooner or later it would happen, strength would change into consciousness. The proles were immortal (...)."

From this moment on, the lower upper middle-class socialist with such fond respect for the old English ways, looked to the proletariat as the liberating force, not without reservations, but with a messianic intensity and a poetic power difficult to define and with all the imprecise passion of the humanitarian, progressive outpourings of the nineteenth century; thus, in evoking a possible future he becomes a Utopian voice from the past. After all, we are only in 1984.

Jacques Charpier

French poet, essayist and radio producer, Jacques Charpier is a former professor of French literature at Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, he is the author of many articles and books, including Paysage du Salut, Le Fer et le Laurier, Paul Valéry, Villon and Saint-John Perse.